The Necesarry Roles For Feminism Cultural Studies Essay

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Feminism or feminists are 'un-African', and instead argue for why feminism has a necessary role to play on the Africancontinent today. The claim or argument that 'feminism is not African' is certainly notnew. It is a claim to which I have been explicitly or implicitly subjected by other Africansas I have come to consciousness as a feminist, while still assuming, naturally, that I canstill identify as an African. One of the speakers at a recent talk I attended recounted howa student at the University of Cape Town (UCT) described her understanding offeminism as a weed that has infiltrated Africa; the implication being that it is nonindigenousand that it threatens to choke or overrun 'true' African values. Clearly, the

argument that feminism is not African is used to dismiss it and to equate its theoretical

and political development in Africa with colonialism or imperialism. It says that those

who declare themselves to be feminist in Africa are not really African or are suffering

from mental colonisation, upholding views which do not belong on African soil and

which have no worth for African cultures or peoples, women or men.

As I understand it, the argument that something or someone is or is not African, what I

call the 'discourse of African authenticity' following Maria Baaz,1 is based either on an

essentialist or a socio-historical claim about Africa. It refers, in other words, either to an

African essence or to African traditions and cultures, and thus to the various cultural

practices that have historically prevailed on the continent. In this short piece, I want to

problematise such claims as they relate to feminism in Africa, asking: What does it mean

to say that something is or is not African? What counts as evidence of this African

identity or authenticity? And finally, even if we accept the notion of some African

authenticity, what happens if something is revealed to be inauthentic? Does this mean it

can have no place or value here in Africa? After considering these questions, I will then

offer my understanding of feminism, so that we can begin to consider the ways in which

it can be beneficial to us in Africa to embrace feminist politics.


The notion that something is or is not 'African' is essentialist if it rests on the premise

that there is an inherently unique place called Africa. It is essentialist if it implies some

sort of intrinsic and therefore unchanging African nature or spirit which characterises or

indeed defines all things African. The anti-essentialist critique of such notions is not new

and so I will not dwell on it too long here; it has been clearly articulated by scholars such

as Kwame Anthony Appiah (1992) and Valentine Mudimbe (1988). They and other raise

the following points: first, Africa is above all a geographical location or space, and even

then it is contestable where its boundaries lie; second, the place we only happen to call

Africa is very large and culturally diverse, made up of very different peoples, cultures

and practices; third, the concept of a singular 'African People' or 'African 'Culture' was

first invented in the western imagination and through the colonial enterprise. As Appiah

puts it, "a specifically African identity began as the product of a European gaze"2; fourth,

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as Appiah has also argued, essentialist claims about an African spirit or identity must

ultimately refer to the biological notion that all Africans have the same blood flowing in

their veins which determines our spirit, culture and capabilities. This crude racialism has

now been debunked by modern science.

In sum, an anti-essentialist position maintains that Africa and thus African-ness or

Africanicity are historical and therefore contingent constructs. This means that we cannot

meaningfully speak of an essential Africa or of essentially African or un-African things,

in which case a consciousness and practice such as feminism cannot be dismissed as un-

African in these terms. This anti-essentialist argument does not imply that there is no

such thing as Africa. It does not deny the many shared historical, material and cultural

conditions across Africa, which are in many ways unique to the continent and which in

many ways shape our identities as African. It denies rather that these conditions are

inherent, natural or fixed.

Culture, Tradition and History

The claim that feminism is 'un-African' may also refer to 'tradition' and 'culture'.

Indeed, I understand this as the most common meaning intended by the claim when it is

popularly deployed, that is 'feminism is not part of African culture'. The argument is that

feminism has no cultural roots in Africa, and therefore no place here today. Yet the

primary weakness with such an argument, which many have noted, is that it reifies our

African cultures and traditions. I mean by this that the argument takes cultures and

traditions as given, as they appear, and as absolute. This ignores the crucial fact that all

cultures and traditions come from somewhere, that they are always the products of

history, and thus always products of, and always subject to, change and contestation. The

argument about culture overlooks the fact that the dominant shape or meaning of any

given culture is inextricably linked to power and inequality within the society or cultural

tradition in question.

I would argue that if most African cultures have traditionally or historically been

patriarchal, and even if most remain so today, this is by no means proof that there have

been no indigenous feminisms to match- feminism defined broadly for now as women's

resistance to patriarchy. If our societies are predominantly patriarchal, this is evidence

only that patriarchy, and not resistance to it, has been hegemonic. This is not, in any case,

proof that patriarchy is right or better. To really prove that feminism is not African

culturally or traditionally speaking, detailed historical and anthropological evidence must

be marshaled as proof that it has had no precedents or place in our diverse cultures. And

to do so, we must look specifically for feminism and not just at patriarchy, all the more

so as the two arguably tend to co-exist, if unevenly, in contestation and in different

spaces. Clearly, such detailed research does not inform political or popular rhetoric in

which the claim that feminism is un-African most typically surfaces. Instead 'culture' is

simply invoked in such arguments, for which the proof is none other than the manifest

form of the culture in question.

I hesitate to use the term feminism in reference to our cultural heritages in Africa for

reasons which point me to a further weakness with the argument that feminism is

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culturally or traditionally un-African. Feminism is a relatively modern term, coined in the

late 19th century in Europe. It is therefore anachronistic to speak of it other than in our

relatively recent history in Africa, as elsewhere. Also, when feminism or feminists are

dismissed by critics in Africa, I believe it is often with reference to specific stereotypes of

feminists, namely of women in Europe or North America burning their bras, or of angry

women who are man-haters. Such images are unlikely to be found, obviously, if one sets

out to look for them in traditional practices in Africa-though there are in fact traditions

of women tearing off their clothes as a sign of protest, amongst women in Eastern Nigeria

for instance.

I think then that it is futile to argue over whether our ancestors were 'feminist' or not, if

feminism is narrowly defined in terms of what a few women in other parts of the world

did at a certain moment in their own history. It is obscuring the point to argue over

whether our ancestors were feminist or not in the precise manner of contemporary

African feminists. Obviously they were not. They could not have been, quite simply

because they lived under very different cultural, material, political and ideological

conditions, and because they had different means at their disposal and different ends in

mind. Frankly, there is no reason why we should expect otherwise.

To explore the historical roots of contemporary feminist praxis in Africa, it is more

appropriate to ask not if the exact same practices existed in the past, but if, how and why

African women historically resisted the conditions that oppressed them as women. If we

ask this more nuanced question, it seems clear that women-some, if not all-must have

resisted oppressive, patriarchal institutions and customs as and when necessary. Bisi

Adeleye-Fayemi, in an article on feminism in Africa, clearly states the logic of my

argument, and extends it even further. She argues that because Africa has some of the

oldest civilisations in the world, it has the oldest patriarchies, and therefore the oldest

traditions of resistance to patriarchy. To believe otherwise is, she states, to falsely imply

"that for centuries African women have crossed their arms and accepted being battered

and depersonalised by patriarchy."3 This is the direct implication of the argument that

feminism is un-African because it is not part of our culture. It implies, as Amina Mama

vividly describes it, that "the 'real' African woman…is content with her subordinate

position as wife, mother and beast of burden. She is passive in the face of abuse, tolerant

of all forms of infidelity; her only real ambition is to retain respectability by labouring for

the maintenance of a stable marriage and family and seeing to the satisfaction of her

husband's desires."4

I consider such an image of the 'authentic' African woman to be not only irrational

(contrary to reason), but also counter-intuitive (contrary to my insight as a woman), and

insulting. Scholarly evidence and even popular wisdom, I would conjecture, exist to

support my position. Existing studies have tended to focus on and even mythologise

'great women' in pre-colonial Africa-queens, warriors, traders and the like.5 It could be

argued that such women were remembered or noteworthy because they were exceptions

to the general rule of women as subordinates. However, Desirée Lewis points out the

difficulty in sourcing detailed empirical evidence on these and other women.6 Other

scholars have gone further to argue that colonialism either introduced gender inequalities

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into Africa in the first place7 or exacerbated them.8 In this case, a return to pre-colonial

traditions would actually imply a return to a more equitable state of gender relations than

presently prevails, in keeping with current feminist ideals.

Scholars studying the colonial period in Africa have traced the presence of what we could

call an indigenous feminist consciousness in various women's movements across the

continent. They have also argued that women's feminist consciousness grew out of their

resistance to colonialism and their participation in nationalist struggles, and that women

often used pre-colonial forms and strategies of organising.9 Nina Mba's pathbreaking

book of 1982, Nigerian Women Mobilized, traces the activism and political engagement

of women in Nigeria well before the modern wave of feminism in the West. Speaking of

the 1929 women's uprising in Eastern Nigeria, she states that: "the women's war was

very much a feminist movement in the sense that the women were very conscious of the

special role of women, the importance of women to society and the assertion of their

rights as women vis-à-vis the men."10

Also, as Amina Mama notes, as early as the 1920s a relatively radical group of women in

Egypt were meeting, acting and naming themselves as feminist.11 Still in Egypt, Margot

Bardran argues that feminism did not come from the West as is frequently charged, but

arose, rather, out of women's "dissatisfaction with their own lives.. [and was] motivated

and directed by women's own social, psychological, economic and political needs."12 She

goes on to name a number of Egyptian women who displayed a feminist consciousness as

early as the mid-19th century, the most famous of whom was Huda Sha'rawi. Other

examples of individual African women who espoused feminist values, explicitly or

implicitly include: Funmilayo Ransome-Kuti in 1940s Nigeria, Margaret Ekpo also of

Nigeria, Constance Cummings-John in Sierra Leone, and so on.

Again, the relative paucity of these examples of politically active African women who

organised as and for women may be taken as proof that they were the exception rather

than the rule. I would argue, rather, that these few examples of early women's

consciousness and organising in Africa stand as evidence of the work that remains to be

done to more fully unearth the histories or precursors of what we now call feminism on

this continent. The fact is that the histories of Africa which we most commonly know are

the histories of and by men; our historical records are not complete until the voices of

ordinary women (and other marginalised groups) are included.

Shifting the discursive terrain

I have now attempted to highlight some of the errors I see in the popular claim, often too

easily made, that feminism is not African essentially, culturally or historically speaking.

But despite my efforts thus far, I must confess a certain impatience with the very terms of

the discourse, with the apparent need to defend feminism in Africa in terms of its

authenticity. Therefore I want to shift the discussion to consider what happens or what it

means if feminism is not actually African in any sense? I want to ask: Why would we

need to resort to essentialist, cultural or historical claims or counter-claims to justify

feminist politics in Africa in the first place? Is it not possible that as Africans, women and

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men, we could choose to define ourselves as feminist, having made the critical

assessment that feminism is in fact relevant and valuable for us, whatever its origins?

Such questions relate to the politics of labeling something or someone as African or un-

African. As seen, within the discourse of African authenticity, the label 'African'

signifies that which is legitimate in and for Africa, whereas 'un-African' signifies the

illegitimate. This functions to not only distinguish Africa from the Western world, but to

also validate Africa in opposition to the latter. The ostensible purpose of the discourse is

to set Africa apart from her former colonial masters and to reclaim the value of our

indigenous, African cultures. The discourse of African authenticity functions to reject the

racism and ethnocentrism with which Africa and the African are still often are judged by


Let me state categorically that I take it to be necessary to promote and celebrate our

continent and our customs in a world that would otherwise devalue all things African. I

believe that it is necessary for us to construct a pan-African identity, and to build a shared

African sensibility and unity. It is important that that we reassert the worth of our many

cultures, and that we protect and retain those cultural elements that are most sacred to us.

Yet it seems to me imperative that if we Africans embark upon such work, we do so in

intelligent and critical ways and for ends which are not merely reactionary to the West

and ultimately retrogressive. As Ayesha Imam puts it: "in revolting against western

ethnocentric false universalisations, we should be careful not to enshrine equally false

essentialisations of Africanicity, which disenfranchise us from examining certain aspects

of oppressive relations."13 However, this is precisely what the discourse of African

authenticity and tradition currently does. The fact is that it functions to promote

conservative and oppressive political agendas: for instance in Zimbabwe and Nigeria to

condemn homosexuality and to deny homosexuals their human and civil rights;14 to

support practices such as genital mutilation, polygamy, domestic abuse and virginitytesting

from which women suffer, and so on.

Imam's point is that we should not uncritically celebrate and cling to some notion of

'African Tradition' just because our various traditions face constant assault and

denigration by outsiders. Not only must we deconstruct facile and oppressive rhetoric of

African 'culture' and 'tradition' as and when it appears, but we must allow and even

desire the possibility that our cultures change, as necessary, and in order to retain their

vitality. This does not mean that we adopt seemingly new or external practices wholesale,

without any reflection. It does mean, however, that we do not dismiss them for these

reasons only, but rather critically engage with them on their own merits (and demerits).

There is, in other words, a need to move beyond the discourse of African authenticity and

inauthenticity, to radically shift the terms of the debate. What should be of concern to us

as Africans is less the origins of a theory or practice, but its potential relevance and

benefit to us.

Feminism in Africa: What benefit?

In this spirit, I want to conclude this piece by offering a tentative understanding of

feminism and by suggesting some of the potential contributions it can make in Africa.

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First I want to draw a distinction between feminism in the singular, which I define

broadly as the political consciousness, commitment and praxis to redress women's

structural disadvantage in patriarchal societies, and feminisms, understood as the various

doctrines and means to this end. I want to consider a specific form of feminism here,

relevant to the African condition, what I call 'radical African feminism'.

As I imagine it, this feminism is one which pursues truly substantive equality between

men and women in Africa where gender inequality presently reigns. If so, this feminism

is not just for women. Its purpose is not to replace men with women, nor even to merely

include more women in men's worlds. Its purpose, rather, is to transform the very

structures of our societies which produce and perpetuate gender inequalities in the first

place. Feminists may seek to enact this transformation primarily by focusing on women's

situations and by advocating on their behalf but this does not mean it is only about

women or, indeed, only about women and men. Rather, it is concerned with radically

reimagining and reshaping all power relations, in which case it concerns human relations

in general. It advocates mutuality and respect in the place of hierarchy, abuse, oppression

and exploitation. It strives for peace, justice and freedoms. It is for these reasons opposed

to neo-liberalism and corruption, imperialism and racism, war and violence.

The potential of such feminist politics in Africa is clear, given the degree to which

inequality and injustice characterise our contemporary societies. In Africa, feminist politics

cannot be separated from the problems of poverty, disease, under-education, militarism,

violence and conflict. These must necessarily be the concerns of radical feminists

committed to Africa, for they overdetermine the lives and conditions of most women on

this continent, indeed men too. Radical African feminism also cannot ignore the linkages

between the local, the national and the global such as the unfair terms in which Africa is

locked into the global capitalist order, which exacerbate poverty and underdevelopment on

the continent. Radical feminists are therefore committed to resist this order, and to critique

and fashion alternatives to development paradigms handed down to us from the West, those

especially that co-opt the language of 'gender' for conservative, patriarchal ends. Thus in

Africa and indeed other post-colonial contexts, a committed feminism is inextricably

linked with anti-imperialist, anti-elitist and anti-racist politics.15 Amina Mama states that

"it presents a praxis that directly opposes the hegemonic interests of multinational

corporations, international financial and development agencies and nation-states."16

The feminism I imagine here is African insofar as it is fully grounded in and informed by

our various local realities, and insofar as it is committed to their amelioration. It is in this

sense that we can speak meaningfully of an African feminism-African because in, of

and for our continent and its peoples. It is radical as it seeks to transform society in its

totality, for the betterment of all, not just women or even a certain type or group of

women. The sketch I have given here is optimistic but not, I believe, unduly so. If

feminists are truly committed to equality, democracy and social justice, then they must be

self-reflexive, open to a constant re-envisioning and re-imagining of their assumptions,

means and ends. If first inspired and informed by a deep concern with women's

oppression, they therefore do not seek to reproduce any other forms oppression between

other social groups. 17

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I offer this vision of a feminism for Africa only tentatively here because it clearly needs to

be further developed and concretised; the practicalities of how such a feminist praxis can be

made real and effective, to bridge the gap between theory and practice, is a work in

progress, in which many contemporary African feminists are engaged. I would argue that

they need the support and constructive input from others Africans. In a sense this has

been my ultimate purpose in this essay: to offer a characterisation of feminism up for

consideration, and to propose that we begin to discuss and debate feminism on its own

merits and on its own terms, rather than continue to focus on where it came from. Let us

no longer seek to legitimate or delegitimate feminism in Africa in terms of its origins.

Instead, a more worthwhile and productive focus for our energies would be a critical

discussion on what feminism is, can and should be for us, women and men, in Africa today.

1 Maria Eriksson Baaz. 'Introduction: African Identity and the Postcolonial.' In Same and Other:

Negotiating African Identity in Cultural Production. Ed. M.E. Baaz and M. Palmberg. (Nordiska

Afrikainsitutet, 2001), p. 8.

2 Anthony Kwame Appiah. In my Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture. (New York/Oxford:

Oxford University Press. 1992), p. 71.

3 Bisi Adeleye-Fayemi. 'Creating and Sustaining Feminist Space in Africa: Local and Global Challenges in

the 21st Century' in Feminist Politics, Activism and Vision: Local and Global Challenges. Ed. L.

Ricciutelli, A. Miles and M. McFadden. (London/New York: Zed Books, 2005), p. 88.

4 Mama, Amina. 'Women' Studies and Studies of Women in Africa during the 1990s.' 1995. Available at

<> , Cited September 2006.

5 For example Desirée Lewis 'African Feminist Studies: 1980-2002: A Review Essay for the African

Gender Institute's 'Strengthening Gender and Women's Studies for Africa's Social Transformation'

Project.' 2002. Available at <> Cited September 2006.

6 Ibid.

7 For example Ronke Oyewunmi. The Invention of Woman: Making African Sense of Western Gender

Discourses. (Minneapolis, USA: University of Minnesota Press), 1997.

8 For example, Nina Mba. Nigerian Women Mobilized. (Berkeley: Institute of International Studies,

University of California Berkeley), 1982.

9 For example Desirée Lewis, op. cit.; Nina Mba, op. cit. etc

10 Mba, op. cit., p. 91

11 Mama, op. cit., p 3.

12 Margot Badran. Feminists, Islam and Nation: Gender and Making of Modern Egypt. (Princeton:

Princeton University Press, 1998).

13 Ayesha Imam. 'Engendering African Social Sciences: An Introductory Essay' in Engendering African

Social Sciences. Eds. A. Imam, A.Mama and F. Sow. (Dakar: CODESRIA, 1997), p. 17.

14 For instance, Marc Epprecht. 'The 'Unsaying' of Indigenous Homosexualities in Zimbabwe; Mapping a

Blindspot in an African Masculinity.' Journal of Southern African Studies 24.4 1998; Jessica Horn. 'Re-

Righting the Sexual Body. Feminist Africa 6. 2006.

15 Sylvia Tamale. 'Alternative Leadership in Africa: Some Critical Feminist Reflections.' Feminist Politics,

Activism and Vision: Local and Global Challenges. Ed. L. Ricciutelli, A. Miles and M. McFadden.

(London/New York: Zed Books, 2005

16 Amina, Mama. 'Editorial.' Feminist Africa 1. 2002, p. 1.

17 Shamillah Wilson. 'Feminist leadership for feminist futures…' In Defending our Dreams: Global

Feminist Voices for a New Generation. Eds. Wilson, S., Sengupta, A. and Evans, K. (London/New York:

Zed Books), 2005.